25 YEARS ON THE CARPET Widespread use of artificial turf hasn't yet swept controversies under the rug


Don Sutton was pitching against his boyhood idol, Robin Roberts. Playing second base for the Houston Astros was a future Hall of Famer named Joe Morgan. Clustered in the crowd of 25,000 at the Houston Astrodome were 12 astronauts, heroes who were racing to the moon.

It was April 18, 1966. The Los Angeles Dodgers defeated the Astros, 6-3, in an otherwise routine game made memorable by the presence of a concrete-hard green carpet. This was baseball's first game played on AstroTurf, and the landscape of American sports would never be the same.

"I thought to myself that this turf would be quick," said Sutton, who recorded the first of his 324 major-league victories that evening. "I couldn't believe it, I figured someone would get killed. When the ball was hit, it was like skipping rocks on a lake."

Artificial turf has survived 25 years in U.S. professional sports, outlasting five presidential administrations, three professional football leagues and the Apollo space program. Despite past controversies and the never-ending disdain of baseball purists, the wall-to-wall carpeting of sports continues around the globe.

In a world without artificial turf, there would be no kangaroo hops, no turf toe, and, certainly, no sports-related rug burns.

"If a horse won't eat it, I won't play on it," Philadelphia Phillie first baseman Dick Allen said when AstroTurf was introduced. Former baseball manager Leo Durocher chimed in, "This travesty could ruin the game."

But baseball, and the nation, endured. Currently, 13 of the 28 NFL teams play on AstroTurf and the Dallas Cowboys use a surface called Texas Turf. As for baseball, 10 of the 26 major-league teams have artificial-turf home fields.

Artificial turf enabled snow belt football teams to move indoors, triggered a building boom of cookie-cutter stadiums in the 1970s, and fueled attendance surges for the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals -- teams that saw a drop in rain-outs and a rise in fans flocking to their parks from several states.

"The country that can send people to the moon and can win a land war in four days can't grow grass indoors," said Steve Hirdt, an editor of the 1991 Elias Baseball Analyst. "In terms of ambience, not many people would say, 'Take me out to the ball game for the smell of the rug.' "

The magic carpet

In the beginning, there was Chem-Gras. This carpet for athletics was developed by the Monsanto Co. with a grant from (( the Ford Foundation, which saw a need to enhance athletic facilities for urban youth.

Why not place a carpet atop pavement and call it a field?

The first carpet was laid at the Moses Brown School in Providence, R.I., in April 1964. It was used for everything from baseball games to tennis matches to graduation ceremonies. The only team that avoided the stuff until game day was the school's football team. It turned out the carpet was too hard for scrimmages. Still, during ceremonies in 1989 marking the 25th anniversary of the turf's installation at Moses Brown, school athletic director and football coach Jerry A. Zeoli marveled over the impact one rug had in sports.

"We had an idea that it would develop into something big," he said.

But the carpet needed a showcase to create a market. Enter the Houston Astrodome.

It looked like a comic book spaceship and was billed without any trace of embarrassment as the eighth wonder of the world. When the Astrodome opened in 1965, it was a concrete and steel oasis in the midst of a Texas summer loaded with heat, humidity and mosquitoes.

Initially, grass was grown inside the stadium because the dome included Lucite panes. But when outfielders consistently lost sight of fly balls, the dome was painted, and the grass began dying.

"The grass was never very good to begin with," Morgan said. "It was like playing on dirt fields when I was a kid. Then, they started painting it. You'd finish a game with paint stains on your uniform."

The solution to the Astrodome's turf problem was Chem-Gras. Unlike modern versions of artificial turf, the carpet covered only the infield for the Astros' first few homestands in 1966. Instead of incorporating sliding paths around the bases -- a wrinkle that came into play in the 1970s -- the infield dirt was maintained.

"What happened was you would get one spin on the ball coming off the turf, and then, as soon as the ball hit the dirt, it took another spin," Morgan said. "It was like target practice."

Morgan, the player, barely remembers the first time he saw AstroTurf. But Hirdt, the statistical whiz who gives baseball numbers meaning, vividly recalls his first sighting of the carpet, which was named AstroTurf by local sportswriters in Houston.

"It was on television," Hirdt said. "The New York Mets were in Houston, and Lindsay Nelson had a piece of the turf in his hand, and he was explaining what it was. All I could think was, 'Is that all there is?' "

Changing the game

Remember the whining that greeted the St. Louis Cardinals' victory in the 1982 World Series with a team that hit only 67 home runs? Purists looked at the future of baseball, and what they saw was pinball played by swarms of fast, singles-hitting players who would rather slap the ball on artificial turf than aim for the fences.

As usual, the purists overreacted. Artificial turf has not dramatically recast the shape of baseball.

"It's more a question of aesthetics than statistics," Hirdt said. "Remember all of those people who said that AstroTurf would raise everyone's batting average by 20 to 30 points. Well, it didn't happen. What did happen is that it changed the types of players who play on the field. You found teams collecting outfielders who could run and cut the ball off in the gaps. You needed players who could prevent singles from becoming triples."

Morgan said that AstroTurf improved the quality of the game and its players.

"I think for a while, AstroTurf revitalized the game," Morgan said. "It made the game quicker and put a premium on defense. Now, I think everyone has adjusted to it. They play a different kind of game now than they did in the early 1980s. Teams are going more for power. In baseball, everything is cyclical, anyway."

In 1971, the Pittsburgh Pirates became the first team playing its home games on artificial turf to win a World Series. Since then, eight World Series have been won by turf teams.

When Joe Torre hit .363 with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1971, he became the first of 11 National League batting champions to play their home games on artificial turf. Turf hitters have won the American League batting title five times since 1976. One of them, Kansas City's George Brett, hit .390 in 1980.

Still, great players learn to adjust to any surface. The batting kings of the 1980s played their home games on grass. Between them, Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres and Wade Boggs of the Boston Red Sox won nine batting titles.

"Grass, dirt, turf, it doesn't matter," Gwynn said. "If they told me had to hit on the moon, I'd hit on the moon."

Injury report

At first, it was nothing serious. Lots of little hurts began afflicting the Houston Astros in 1966. Sore legs. Tender backs. Pulled muscles. The players pointed to the carpet.

"I never liked playing on AstroTurf," said Bob Watson, the Astros assistant general manager, who was a rookie outfielder-first baseman with Houston in 1966. "It's hard on your legs and your lower back. I'd have to stand in the whirlpool after a game. Fifty-five degree water. Also, if you dived for a ball, you'd have one tremendous rug burn. And those stay with you the whole season. They never heal. It's like a second- or third-degree burn. It's tough to perform with a carpet burn on your arm."

Nagging injuries for baseball players soon became major injuries for football players. In the early 1970s, studies began to link the use of turf with a rise in football injuries. An NFL Players Association survey showed 8.7 injuries per game were suffered on artificial turf compared with 6.9 on grass during the first half of the 1984 season. Three times, the NFLPA asked Congress to declare a moratorium on the turf's installation. No legislation was enacted.

Monsanto and the NFL disputed the injury studies. But even anecdotal evidence was compelling.

Two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin missed most of the 1983 NFL season after making a cut on an artificial-turf field and tearing an abdominal muscle.

"My foot just got caught in a seam of the turf," said Griffin, Ohio State assistant athletic director. "I didn't get touched by anybody, and I just went down."

In 1974, Texas Christian University running back Kent Waldrep broke his neck and was paralyzed after being tackled by an Alabama player and striking the surface at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala. Waldrep sued Biltrite, the manufacturer of PolyTurf, and eventually received an out-of-court financial settlement in 1984.

"Artificial turf took my freedom away from me," Waldrep said.

Most players are luckier than Waldrep, yet artificial turf and injuries are hard facts of life in the NFL. The controversy over the surface may have subsided, but the carpet remains as a fast track to ferocious hits.

"With speed, you get momentum; with momentum, you get greater force; and with greater force, you get greater trauma," Philadelphia Eagles trainer Otho Davis said. "The body absorbs higher impact, and with higher impact you have a greater chance of injury. It's like a big wheel going around and around and around. It never stops."

The future

You would not want to be an artificial-turf salesman in the United States. The market is flat. Mostly resurface jobs.

For the past decade, the baseball commissioner's office has urged that new stadiums have grass playing fields. The New Comiskey Park in Chicago has a grass field. So will the Camden Yards stadium in Baltimore. Both of the new National League expansion franchises, Denver and Miami, will have grass fields.

Even pro football teams are shying away from playing on turf. Teams that once played on turf -- the San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins -- now play on grass. The New England Patriots recently ripped the carpet out of Foxboro Stadium.

And yes, even the Astros, the team that began this carpet madness, would dearly love to play indoors on grass.

"Until they come up with some kind of lights to grow grass indoors, we're stuck with it," Watson said.

While artificial turf may be rolling out of favor in the United States, it is being rolled out overseas. From Frankfurt to Tokyo to Riyadh, children and grown-ups are bouncing soccer balls, baseballs and bodies off artificial turf. Europe in particular is a growth area. The continent is poised for a stadium-building boom to greet the next century.

But don't expect artificial-turf sales to cut into the U.S. trade deficit. America's gift to sports is no longer owned by Americans. Monsanto got out of the business in February 1988.

Oh, they still weave the carpets in Dalton, Ga. But the profits g to a company named Balsam Sportstattenbau.

.' Address: Steinhagen, Germany.

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